How to Talk to Your Designer: Three Strategies for Success

You’re the CMO or editorial director of a professional services firm and you’re looking at the illustration Bob, your designer, has produced for a thought leadership article. You’re unhappy. The illustration just isn’t telling the story. You wonder, “Has Bob even read the article?”

Stop wondering. Nine out of ten times, Bob hasn’t read past the headline. And he won’t.

That’s not because Bob’s a bad designer, or a lazy one; he’s a designer because he’s not a word person. That’s you. You see words and you know they contain the ideas of your thought leaders. He sees those words and he knows they’re not meant for him. Actually, Bob doesn’t have a great deal of use for words. They’re so . . . wordy.

To communicate successfully with Bob and get him to produce illustrations and graphics that will inform your content and make it spring to vivid life, you need to learn how to talk to someone who doesn’t live in the word world.

This takes practice and humility. Why humility? Because you need to understand that Bob’s world of image and emotion is just as sophisticated and esoteric as yours. You can’t do what he does. Of course, he can’t do what you do but why would he want to? Words are so . . . gray.  

To help you work with your designer, here are three strategies you can employ to get what you want, and maybe get something better than you could ever imagine.

  1. Talk about emotions, not ideas. Admittedly, this can be a challenge in the professional services realm. What emotion goes with a white paper about implementing a new accounting system? Well, it could be the joy of seeing the financial future. Maybe it’s the relief that next quarter’s sales figures won’t come as a total shock. It could be the fear that without this new system the business will fail. In any case, there’s no image for accounting-system-implementation in Bob’s world. And it’s futile to talk to him about the system’s benefits and challenges. All he’ll hear is blah, blah, blah. He can, however, find images and colors to represent joy, relief, and fear. And if you can tell him what emotion you want expressed, you’re collaborating; you’re leveraging what Bob does to the benefit of what you do. It’s a win-win.
  2. Stick with one idea. Words are ambiguous. They contain multiple meanings. Images are not ambiguous. When you use words to describe a cat crossing a room, the cat might be threatening, cute, a harbinger of disaster or, as was the case with Schrodinger’s kitty, alive and dead at the same time. But a picture of a cat is always that cat and no other, doing whatever it’s doing and nothing else. That’s why you cannot expect an illustration or photograph to say more than one thing. For example: Implementing that new accounting system will be difficult but ultimately it will make life easy. Expressing that voyage is the work of words; when it comes to telling Bob what you want, pick one: difficulty or ease. If you insist on both, neither of you will end up happy. You will think Bob’s an idiot for not understanding the subtlety of the concept; Bob will think you’re an idiot for not understanding what images can and cannot do. And Bob will be more right than you.
  3. Ask, don’t tell. When you write, do you like to be told what words to use? I doubt it. And Bob doesn’t like to listen to you describe (in words) images and colors that you think will express an article’s ideas. In Bob’s quite justified opinion, you’re an amateur. You often end up using the dreaded word “collage” (which is a tell-tale sign that you’ve failed to come up with a single, strong image), or describing some Rube Goldberg-like process which is impossible to illustrate. Don’t try to do Bob’s job. Your job is to identify the emotion and the single idea you wish Bob to convey; it’s Bob’s job to find the image that best conveys it. And if he’s good, he will.

Conversations between editors and designers often are fraught with difficulty because they don’t speak the same language. The onus is on you to learn Bob’s. After all, you’re the word person.

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